The Georgia General Assembly kicked off its 2017 session this week, drawing most of my attention now and for the next few months. But the transition of power in Washington is also unfolding, and this week has — as is customary when a new president is entering office — brought us a flurry of confirmation hearings for cabinet appointments.
We’ve previously covered the fact that Democrats unilaterally changed the filibuster rules for most presidential appointments, giving them scant chance now of blocking Donald Trump’s nominees. That doesn’t mean they’re laying down; nor should they. But it’s important to understand why they’re making the kinds of protests they’re making, and the biggest of those reasons — the 2018 and 2020 elections — are summarized nicely by Caitlin Huey-Burns at Real Clear Politics.
The confirmation process, she notes, is “one of the first steps in (Democrats’) rebuilding effort following painful November losses.” While this is true generally, it is most obvious in specific instances. Particularly the unprecedented nature of Sen. Cory Booker’s testimony Wednesday against fellow Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Trump nominee for attorney general.
“No sitting senator has testified against another in a confirmation hearing — a historical tidbit Booker isn’t shy about pointing out. While the first-term senator argues that his colleague’s history regarding civil rights, immigration, and voting rights warrant the revolutionary move, others may see it as a way for Booker to build up his bona fides as a party leader — particularly since Sessions is essentially on a glide path to confirmation.
“‘I believe, like perhaps all of my colleagues, that in the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,’ Booker told the Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
“The senator’s statement could have been read as something of a stump speech. ‘The arc of the universe does not just naturally curve toward justice – we must bend it,’ he said in opposing Sessions.”
Of course, as Huey-Burns also points out, not all Democrats will see things the same way — and the least likely to do so are the most vulnerable ones come 2018.
“If Booker represents one aspect of a party in the process of post-election recovery, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin represents another. As does Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly. And North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. And Montana’s Jon Tester.
“All are all up for re-election in 2018 and represent states Trump won overwhelmingly. Democrats will also have to defend Senate seats in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, which are now technically Trump states. As a result, the midterm map is challenging for Democrats, and Republicans hope to secure a filibuster-proof majority. Trump may get some support from vulnerable Democrats for his Cabinet picks, or his other priorities such as filling the Supreme Court vacancy. Manchin has expressed support for Sessions, for example, and has spoken in person and over the phone with Trump on recent occasions.”
The biggest threat to Democrats over the next four years will be the inherent tension between their interests in the 2018 election vs. the 2020 one. They spent the last several years losing ground in the midterms, and now they’ve lost the presidency, too. The kind of politics it takes to become more competitive in a year like 2018, keeping the party’s furthest-left instincts at bay, is probably the same as it will take in 2020. But the (very, very early) leading contenders for the nomination in 2020 are people like Booker and Elizabeth Warren — not the kind of Democrats who tend toward that kind of politics.
Whether it’s the GOP or the Democrats who fare the best over the next two years will probably come down to which can manage the most unity the most often. I wouldn’t make any assumptions at this point about which party that will be.